Having grown up in a military family, Candice Storey Lee had been to 12 different schools by the time she started high school. When she was recruited to Vanderbilt University’s women’s basketball team, she found the place she intended to stay for the long haul, and she’s been there ever since.
Candice earned her bachelor’s, master’s and doctorate degrees from Vanderbilt, and she has spent the last 20 years of her career at the prestigious university serving as deputy director of the athletics program as well as the athletics department’s senior woman administrator.
On February 4, 2020, with the support of her husband Sean and son Andrew, Candice accepted the position of Interim Vice Chancellor for University Affairs and Athletics and Interim Athletics Director for her alma mater. That appointment secured her spot in the history books as Vanderbilt’s first female athletics director and the first African American female to serve as an athletic director in the history of the SEC. Find out what that feels like from the groundbreaking woman herself. Meet Candice Storey Lee, our newest FACE of the South!
You’ve made history by being appointed to your new role. What does that feel like?
Tremendously humbling. To be the first of something is an amazing privilege, but having said that, I’ve had the opportunity to work with some talented people at the university, in this conference, and across the country, and I know that there are so many other people like me who are deserving of opportunities, but they haven’t had the chance. So perhaps being in this interim role, it may open up doors for other people, and if that’s the case, I’m really thankful for that.
What are some of the key responsibilities in your new role?
I think as the athletics director, my job is to set the tone for the department, to create and communicate the vision, to make sure we’re taking care of our student-athletes, and to create the culture that allows us to be successful. We define success in many ways, but primarily providing the best student-athlete experience possible.
And what does that experience look like?
A student-athlete being able to reach their potential in their sport — winning at a high level, competing at a high level, having a great classroom experience, studying the major that they want to study, graduating having availed themselves of all the resources that come with Vanderbilt, but also feeling like they got the full experience of being a college student — whether that’s socially or studying abroad or participating in a community service initiative. We want our student-athletes to participate in as much as possible. We know they are elite athletes, so they are dedicated to their sport. That takes up a lot of time, and it should because that’s part of the commitment that they made. But to the degree we can also provide them access to the full experience, we try to do that.
What are the assets you bring to the table that are going to help you succeed in this role?
I care a lot about people. I feel like I’m relational and that I have a good rapport with our staff and respect what people bring to the table. I hope people think I’m an effective communicator. Transparency is really important. I really want to be known as someone who is honest and operates with integrity, and who when she says she’s going to do something, you can believe it. If I can do those things, then I can go home and face my family and myself and feel really good about the work that I’ve done.
Describe your leadership style. Is there any similarity between how you lead on the court and how you lead in your work?
I was more of a reserve player on the court. I tried to lead by example, and I hope I’m still doing that. I tried to be a good communicator, so I hope I’m still doing that. I tried to be very authentic, and I think that’s really important, so I hope people know what they’re going to get when they deal with me, and that it’s consistent. I think consistency is an important part of being a leader.
What is it like serving in a traditionally male role?
Everyone has been fantastic! One of the first things that happened when the announcement came out is that I heard from every single athletics director in the SEC and beyond. I heard from Gene Smith at Ohio State — I thought that was incredible! And my husband and son are incredible! People have been nothing but helpful and supportive.
When you think about being a woman in this sort of male-dominated profession, to have family and a support network that supports what you do is so important.
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Do you have any mentor(s), and what has been the biggest piece of wisdom you have learned from that person?
I think it’s important to mentor and to be mentored; I relish both chances. And I have been blessed by many people taking an interest in and supporting me — I think that’s critically important. In many different iterations, the thing I come back to is the importance of being yourself and not feeling like you have to measure up to some standard that was created by someone else. Be yourself, and be confident in that. I think it’s especially important for women. As a woman and a person of color, when the odds are stacked against you at many points in your life, this reminder that you are enough and to be yourself is just so very helpful.
“As a woman and a person of color, when the odds are stacked against you at many points in your life, this reminder that you are enough and to be yourself is just so very helpful.”
Is there anything you want readers to know about you and/or your new position?
I have functioned in the deputy athletic director role for a few years, but what happens a lot is I get asked about trying to compare or contrast myself with previous leaders. I would just say that it’s important that each leader is evaluated on their own merit — I wouldn’t begin to compare or contrast myself because that’s not respectful to those previous leaders. I invite people to just learn who I am.
Shifting gears, what is something that your co-workers would be surprised to know about you?
I was the homecoming queen in high school. If people knew me, they would be like what? I was the most reluctant homecoming queen ever! I wasn’t going to go, but my mom made me. I was really kind of an irritated homecoming queen. That still makes me laugh!
What’s the best advice you’ve ever received?
I heard something not too long ago that’s sticking me: “Wisdom is doing today what you’re going to be proud of later.” I’ve been thinking a lot about that, especially in light of this role where you sometimes don’t always get to say what you want or you don’t get the benefit of the doubt. I try to think about wisdom and let that help me.
Also, I read this wonderful book called Emotional Agility, and it talks a lot about the space between the thinker and the thought. It’s really all about being agile enough to always hold on to your values and not let emotion dictate what you do. I’m not always perfect at that, but I love the concept.
Aside from faith, family and friends, what are three things you can’t live without?
“Golden Girls;” almost any kind of fruity, chewy candy; and … I’ve been known to enjoy a little coffee with my creamer — I’m BIG on coffee creamer, and all the fun flavors too! There are two new Coffee mate flavors — Funfetti and Cinnamon Toast Crunch. I haven’t found them yet, but I’m down to try some creamer!
Thank you to Candice Storey Lee for sharing a peek inside her history-making role. And thank you to Leila Grossman for the beautiful photos taken at Vanderbilt University’s McGugin Center.
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